BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HOTEL: DESERT DAYS AT AMANGIRI
Amangiri is an ode to the mysterious rock formations of southern Utah and the ancient Navajo culture. This is no ordinary hotel, but an enclave of luxury and style in America’s most dramatic desert landscape.
Take one of the world’s most exclusive hotel brands, add several prominent American architects and drop them into the magical moonscape of immense rock formations, mesas and rolling hills somewhere deep in southern Utah. When the founder and previous owner of Aman Resorts was given the chance to build an intimate hotel on a 250-acre plot deep in the heart of the U.S., he quickly agreed. Together with three renowned Arizona architects – Marwan Al-Sayed, Wendell Burnette and Rick Joy, who set up I-10 Studio, named after the highway between Phoenix and Tucson that connects their offices, to work on the project – the brief was to build something beyond unique. Aman Resorts was clear about the concept: “It had to be a contemporary interpretation of traditional Native Indian architecture. Not a copy, but a special version that evokes a certain mood and refers back to the exceptional surroundings and culture.”
The location is Canyon Point, a stone’s throw from the famous Lake Powell and spot on the invisible border between Arizona and Utah. Finding Amangiri in this desert landscape is not easy. A mini signpost indicates left, towards a dusty road that disappears into endless oblivion… After a long drive between looming rock formations with characteristic flowing lines etched in the sandstone, at last Amangiri is visible in the distance: a mirage in the form of a razor-sharp, rectangular pavilion made of polished concrete.
Amangiri nestles alongside a huge sandstone escarpment, the architecture unimposing against the landscape – the only unnatural note in this desert setting is the contrasting slice of blue that makes up the swimming pool. Out of respect for the rugged Utah terrain and its typical Entrada sandstone, the hotel was designed as a massive block that emerges from the earth as though through natural erosion by the elements, and built using a mixture of local sand and cement to closely match the colour and density of the surrounding geological formations. Because of its remoteness, a special concrete casting plant had to be built on-site and colossal moulds were used to achieve the resulting monolithic forms.
The special multiplex foundations for the structure gives the smooth concrete a reflective gleam, which mirrors the desert light and gives the entire structure an unearthly appearance. Light is undoubtedly one of the most important protagonists here. The location is so remote that there’s literally nothing to do here except admire how the surrounding nature is brought to life by the moving light throughout the day. I-10 Studio have designed Amangiri in such a way that light constantly manifests itself in different ways; the angular minimalism of the building’s design is enhanced by an equally jagged play of light – from the fine sun rays sketching patterns on the sand-coloured walls, to the views through glassless windows that give the landscape beyond the appearance of a painting. The architecture grabs the extreme environment and the light and pulls them both inside.
Every aspect of the architecture refers back to the immediate surroundings. Like two eagle’s wings, the 34 rooms and suites sweep out from the main building towards the desert; each room overlooks this harsh scenery and wide, panoramic views are visible from the bath and the bed. The idea is that you can step immediately out of your room and into the desert; a large, folding window opens completely on to a private terrace with a fire pit – perfect for admiring the intense, pitch-black nights and starry skies of southern Utah.
In the main pavilion there is a bar, a restaurant, a library and a shop. In true Asian tradition there’s also a posh spa, where you find cool, enclosed spaces that hark back to traditional Navajo hogan buildings and, for less sweltering moments of the day, small open-air treatment pavilions. The spa’s small swimming pool also provides relief from the dry desert heat. Wherever you look, all you see is water, rock or sky – nothing else.
Amangiri is defined by a purity of design and an absence of over-decoration; it’s a bit like camping in ultra-luxurious surroundings. Imagine: no noise (not even music beside the swimming pool); the constantly shifting, hallucinatory landscapes; and no light pollution, because the civilised world is so far away. Perhaps these elements give Amangiri its extraordinary character and explain why it is that those who visit always wish to return.
Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.